People Are Turning to TikTok and YouTube For 'Authentic' First-Hand Accounts of Ukrainians Fleeing Conflict and Life During Wartime
Many creators keep their posts lighthearted so Ukraine will "stay on people's minds" a Kyiv-based TikToker added.
This story originally appeared on Business Insider
Travel vlogger Johnny Jen has lived all over the world. Scrolling through his YouTube timeline, you'll see videos of him on a party bus in Lithuania, relaxing on a beach in Turkey, and climbing mountains in Sri Lanka. But a few weeks ago, Jen's vlogs began to document his chaotic and dangerous journey fleeing Ukraine on a train.
Originally from San Diego, California, Jen had been living in Ukraine for almost a year, making videos as he explored the country's food and culture. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Jen decided to vlog his journey from Kyiv to Hungary, showing his 230,000 subscribers how frantic the situation was from his perspective.
Like Jen, many content creators in Ukraine have continued to post lifestyle content, adapting it to the unfolding situation of war.
Luxury house tours have turned into filming temporary bomb shelters, and the "Day in my life" video format, where influencers would usually film themselves drinking smoothies and attending red carpet events, now involves volunteering with humanitarian aid organizations and staying inside to avoid missiles.
Just weeks ago, 20-year-old Valeria Shashenok was posting behind-the-scenes TikToks from her frequent fashion photography shoots. But these days, Shashenok is sharing what life is like in her temporary bomb shelter home.
One of her recent TikToks features a reimagined version of the "Things In My House That Just Make Sense" TikTok trend where users share parts of their home while Louis Prima's cheery Italian song "Che La Luna" plays in the background.
Here, however, she takes viewers on a tour around the bomb shelter, before going above ground to show destroyed buildings in the neighborhood. "Living my best life. Thanks, Russia!" she wrote in her video caption.
As Russia's invasion of Ukraine heads into its first month and traditional news sources contend with ongoing disinformation campaigns, many are turning to first-person social media accounts to help make sense of the conflict. Shashenok — whose "Things in My House" TikTok garnered more than 41 million views — and other 20-something creators, offers an up-close look at the ongoing confusion and devastation in Ukraine and provides an eye-opening glimpse at what life is like for so many young people during the war.
Creators turn to humor to cope with the devastation
Former travel blogger Alina Volik used to share TikTok videos of her glamorous vacations around the world with her 76,000 followers. These days, Volik uses the platform to post updates about life under siege. In one video, she describes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the country's "psychotherapist" and says the "entertainment of the day" is visiting supermarkets with empty shelves.
"Humor is a weapon that helps us bond with one another," the 18-year-old told Insider. "TikTok is a place for me to relate to other Ukrainians, and when I watch other creators' funny videos, I feel like I'm not alone."
Liza Lysova, 17, garnered a million views on a TikTok where she filmed herself smiling and doing a TikTok dance with an on-screen caption that read, "When you woke up at 5 am to the sounds of explosions and everything trembling and realize that Russia declared war on Ukraine."
She told Insider: "I think others, as well as myself, are coping with stress by using humor."
'I want Ukraine to stay in people's minds, so I found the way to do that is to make lifestyle videos to show people what's going on in a more palatable way'
Jen says he's also trying to keep his videos "lighthearted."
In his video, "Chaos trying to flee Ukraine," posted on March 2, Jen — who has been posting travel content for more than eight years — found himself trying to stay calm as people crowded into train stations to leave the country.
"I filmed the video in the same style as I normally would, trying to keep things lighthearted, but the actual event was very tragic," he told Insider.
He said he deliberately films a mixture of fun and political content in his Ukraine vlogs, which include clips of him drinking liquor and chatting to friends as well as clips from Ukrainian protests, because, "I know that if I make it too serious, some people will just click off and get tired of it."
"I want Ukraine to stay in people's minds. I found the way to do that is to make lifestyle videos to show people what's going on in a more palatable way," he continued.
That notion also seemingly inspired Ukrainian YouTuber Olga Reznikova. Reznikova, from Kyiv, used the platform to film herself driving from Ukraine to Poland with her two children. When she arrived, she posted a vlog showing her 266,000 subscribers what an average day looks like for her now.
In it, Reznikova fries onions and mushrooms while TV news about the ruined homes and streets in Ukraine blares in the background.
Reznikova told Insider that even though people watching the news about Ukraine will likely only see clips of destruction, her vlogs aim to show people her "everyday normal life," which still involves doing chores and looking after her kids.
Social media resonates particularly among young audiences, who value its 'authenticity'
Reznikova said that while the news tends to present "only facts," YouTube allows her to share a mixture of factual information and personal experience. She says many of her videos are educational, aiming to explain to viewers why the conflict has unfolded, while others depict her life and opinions.
She also said she thinks vlogging can feel more relatable than television news because vloggers like her listen to their audience's request. "We can show them what they're asking about, so they understand what's going on. TV channels don't always have such direct feedback in the same way as we get comments on YouTube," she said.
Jen agreed this could be why his vlogs are an appealing source of information, saying he always films and speaks directly from his own experience. "I definitely don't want to jump on the bandwagon of the news cycle. I'll only share what I'm seeing around me, and that's what keeps it authentic."
He said he was inspired by YouTubers who went to Afghanistan in recent years whose vlogs were a "time capsule of what life was like" before the Taliban's invasion. "Even though YouTube is primarily for entertainment, it's also an important part of history," he said.
YouTube and TikTok have already started to "replace traditional media and the news," Jen said, particularly among younger people. That's a sentiment that's supported by a 2019 Reuters Institute study, which found that people under 35 years old think "traditional news media no longer seems as relevant or as dominant when it comes to news content," compared to social media.
"Traditional news brands see news as: what you should know. — Young audiences see news as: what you should know (to an extent), but also what is useful to know, what is interesting to know, and what is fun to know," the study said.
University of Oregon journalism professor Damian Radcliffe agreed, saying that these videos automatically feel "more informal and less stuffy" than the formats typically adopted on broadcast, print, and online news outlets.
"That's going to resonate with some audiences, especially younger demographics, who value the authenticity and slightly more 'raw' feel these videos can have," he said.
Volik, the TikToker who has been creating humorous content about Ukraine, told Insider that she receives messages from viewers every day, thanking her for her take on the war. "They tell me that I'm so brave to share my story and to talk about it. I just want foreigners to see, through my videos, how people in Ukraine feel right now."